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UAV Operations in National Air Space Advance as Privacy Fight Heats Up

SUASNews

by Press • 16 September 2013

http://www.suasnews.com/2013/09/25082/uav-operations-in-national-air-space-advance-as-privacy-fight-heats-up/?utm_source=sUAS+News+Daily&utm_campaign=cf551fdcc1-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b3c0776dde-cf551fdcc1-303662705

DEE ANN DIVIS

Significant progress has been made in integrating two classes of small, unmanned aircraft into the national air space (NAS), an area of considerable interest for GNSS companies whose products provide navigation and guidance for many of the unmanned systems.

Standards have been drafted for the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) weighing up to 55 pounds, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) have formally agreed to work together to help police departments and other government agencies quickly to make mini-drones — UAVs weighing less that 25 pounds — part of their operations.

Not yet clear, however, is what these developments will do for the overall market for unmanned systems. Government officials may decide to dial back purchases of unmanned aircraft if the privacy concerns sweeping the country trigger new limits on their use. Worries over privacy are already credited with slowing FAA’s integration efforts by months.

Although the standards are nearly complete, they need to be integrated into the FAA’s draft of its small UAV rule, which has yet to be finished. Once those are published for public comments, both will likely need to be updated at least once, probably twice, to incorporate the feedback.

The fact that the standards are nearly ready, however, is a bright spot for an industry deeply frustrated by delays on nearly every other front. The draft standards cover UAV design, including command and control systems and batteries. There are also standards for production, quality assurance, maintenance, and continued airworthiness as well as the aircraft flight manual and requirements for operations when flying over populated areas.

Setting Standards

Initial standards were developed by ASTM International, an organization formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials. The FAA chartered an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) in 2008 to examine the regulatory basis for permitting small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to operate for compensation or hire. ASTM was invited to participate and in 2010 signed a memorandum of agreement to develop the standards.

The standards were restructured over the last year to “better support both civil and public entities,” said Ted Wierzbanowski, in a paper for the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) conference in August in Washington, D.C. Wierzbanowski has led the standards effort as the chair of ASTM’s Committee F38. He said the draft standards are now being reviewed by the committee members and would soon be sent to the FAA for their consideration.

“What the FAA is planning to do is look at those standards and beta test them to see if they are too stringent or not stringent enough,” Wierzbanowski told Inside GNSS. Over the next couple of years the standards will be checked against existing hardware and weighed by developers working on new aircraft, with ample opportunity for public feedback, he said.

The standards will be used for civil drones once the small UAV rule takes effect — which could be several years from now.

Wierzbanowski said, “[F]rom what I understand, it is going to take quite a long time for [the FAA] to do what is called adjudicate, or resolve, all the comments they are gong to get from the general public. So most of us don’t think that this regulation for civil, again commercial, applications is going to be out for at least two, two and half, to three years.”

“It’s going to be a while,” he said.

While ASTM worked on standards for the smaller UAVs, another set of standards was being developed by RCTA committee SC-203 for larger, unmanned aircraft — an effort that is not nearly as far along. The task proved so large, experts said, that SC-203 was sunsetted in May and its tasks restructured to focus on developing the minimum operational performance standards or MOPS for detect-and-avoid equipment.

The new committee — SC-228 Minimum Operational Performance Standards for Unmanned Aircraft Systems — is emphasizing the initial phase of standards development for civil UAS operating in Class A airspace under instrument flight rules. The work is expected to extend into at least 2016.

Although that seems like a lengthy wait, the FAA will not be finished with the integration process for quite a while. The FAA has a mid-term and long-term plan, said FAA spokesman Les Dorr, and is looking at eventually integrating unmanned aircraft into NextGen, the new air traffic control system. “That’s where we expect to reduce the dependency on individual approvals,” he said

http://www.insidegnss.com/node/3687

 

Texas law gets tough on public, private drone use

SUASNews

by Press • 15 September 2013

A hobbyist using a remote-control airplane mounted with a digital camera just happened to capture images last year of a Dallas creek running red with pig’s blood. It led to a nearby meatpacking plant being fined for illegal dumping and two of its leaders being indicted on water pollution charges.

Yet, a Texas law that took effect Sept. 1 tightened rules not on polluters but on taking such photographs, an effort to better protect private property from drone surveillance.

More than 40 state legislatures have debated the increasing presence of unmanned aircraft in civilian airspace, with most of the proposals focused on protecting people from overly intrusive surveillance by law enforcement.

But Texas’ law tips the scales in police favor _ giving them broad freedoms to use drones during investigations and allowing them to bypass a required search warrant if they have suspicions of illegal activity _ while also limiting use of small drones by ordinary residents.

“Texas is really the outlier,” said Allie Bohm, an advocacy and policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The law makes using drones to capture images of people or property without permission punishable by a fine up to $500, while also allowing those improperly photographed or filmed to collect up to $10,000 in civil penalties if they can show that images were collected or distributed with malice.

Supporters say it makes Texas a national leader in ensuring privacy protections keep pace with technology while curbing possible corporate espionage and other unauthorized snooping. But critics worry it gives police too much leeway while trampling on the constitutional rights of private citizens and media outlets.

Republican state Rep. Lance Gooden said he introduced the bill to address concerns that ordinary Texans could use drones to spy on private property, as well as in response to fears that animal rights groups or environmentalists could keep tabs on livestock ranches or oil pipelines. But he said exceptions were added after law enforcement agencies worried the drone bans would make it difficult to do their jobs.

“We didn’t think that the Constitution gives someone the right to invade someone else’s privacy,” said Gooden, from Terrell, east of Dallas.

Congress has directed the Federal Aviation Administration to provide drones widespread access to domestic airspace by 2015, and the agency predicts that perhaps 7,500 small commercial unmanned aircraft could be operating domestically five years after that.

Seven states have passed drone restrictions nationwide, with measures in Illinois, Florida, Montana and Tennessee mostly protecting individual privacy rights, requiring that law enforcement obtain warrants when using drones or prohibiting images collected from them from being used in court. Virginia, meanwhile, declared a two-year moratorium on drone use by law enforcement so it can study the privacy implications.

Only Texas and Idaho restrict drone use by private citizens as well as public entities, however, and Texas’ broad exception allows police or law enforcement contractors to forgo a search warrant if they “have reasonable suspicion or probable cause.” Other states only waive warrant requirements in cases of catastrophe or terrorist attack.

Lon Craft, director of legislative affairs for the Texas Municipal Police Association, said it still goes too far, though.

“I’m OK if they want to limit citizens, but don’t tie the hands of law enforcement,” said Craft, who said he used to employ drones as part of a narcotics task force in Harris County, which includes Houston.

That use is one of more than 40 exceptions in the Texas law. Others permit drone use anywhere within 25 miles of the U.S. border and by everyone from students conducting scholarly research to real estate brokers taking promotional pictures.

Still, clamor for the law was such that, with time running out to pass bills in the state House in May, a chant of “Drones! Drones! Drones!” filled the chamber. It was approved with more than 100 bipartisan co-sponsors.

Todd Humphreys, director of the University of Texas’ Radionavagation Laboratory, said he believes the state has struck fair balance but also noted that much of what’s prohibited is still acceptable for anyone with a camera and a long lens in a car, helicopter or plane.

“You can see, all through this legislation, examples of people just being spooked by these vehicles,” Humphreys said. “They associate them with war or surveillance like something out of `1984′.”

Alicia Calzada, an Austin-based attorney and former photojournalist, noted: “Any time you need that many exceptions to a bill, it’s a sign you’re going down the wrong road.”

Gooden said the law won’t affect journalists because covering news doesn’t meet the definition of surveillance. And the hobbyist’s discovery of pig’s blood would fall under exceptions that allow drones to hunt for environmental hazards, he said.

But Gooden added that instance of uncovering wrongdoing shouldn’t trump privacy protections for all Texans.

“We could scrap the section of the Constitution that says you’ve got to get a search warrant, and then law enforcement can just go search a random 100 houses every night,” he quipped. “I’m sure they’d find something.”

http://democratherald.com/news/national/texas-law-gets-tough-on-public-private-drone-use/article_8860ba9f-0f3f-565b-80a4-a2aac8a9c2e8.html

 

Your guide to a government shutdown

Money.com

By Jeanne Sahadi @CNNMoney

September 16, 2013: 2:31 PM ET

 

NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

The risk of a government shutdown this fall has gone up.

If Congress can’t agree on at least a short-term funding bill that President Obama is willing to sign, many functions of the federal government — but not all — will be shut down indefinitely on Oct. 1.

And Uncle Sam will pay a price. There’s a cost to shutting the government down and then reopening it when the storm clouds clear. Two shutdowns in the mid-1990s cost an estimated $1.4 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

There’s no telling exactly what a shutdown in October would look like because the White House has some discretion in terms of what’s hit and what’s not. But based on the shutdowns in the mid-1990s, the following is a pretty good bet.

What will be closed for business: Many, if not most, federal government offices, programs, museums and parks would be shuttered.

So if the shutdown lasts awhile, the travel industry could take a hit as vacations and business trips are scuttled — whether because people can’t get a visa or passport or because they have to cancel their plans to visit Yosemite.

For federal contractors, projects may be delayed because the agencies they work for can’t issue the paperwork needed to move forward.

And Americans who need something from a federal office affected by the shutdown may be out of luck.

What will be open for business: Parts of the government that provide what the White House budget office deems critical would still operate.

Critical services, broadly speaking, protect human life and property. Typically that has included air traffic control, national security, the handling of hazardous waste, food inspections, border protection, maintenance of the power grid and disaster assistance.

In addition, taxes likely would still be collected, and U.S. bonds issued. Anything else deemed essential to the preservation of the country’s banking system would likely carry on as well.

Related: Pessimism deepens over budget standoff

Who will come to work and who won’t: Hundreds of thousands of federal workers would be furloughed without pay. Historically that pay has been restored when the shutdown ends, but there’s no guarantee of that in law.

Many federal employees, however, would be exempted from furloughs. President Obama and his presidential appointees, as well as members of Congress, fall into that category.

Also expected to work through a shutdown are federal employees needed to preserve key parts of the money and banking systems.

Anyone authorized to work during a shutdown would be paid, although in most instances they will not get their checks until after the shutdown ends.

How mail would be affected: The mail would still be delivered.

How justice will be served: The federal judiciary estimated that if a shutdown had occurred this year, the court system could have functioned for roughly 10 working days on the basis of fees and funds from prior appropriations, according to CRS.

Related: Budget follies: 3 crazy years and counting

When that funding runs out, the judiciary would allow “essential work” to be performed, including the resolution of cases.

Federal court staff and officers who work through the shutdown would not be paid during the shutdown. But Supreme Court justices and federal judges appointed under Article III of the Constitution would.

If you’re called for federal jury duty, you won’t get paid for it on time.

What happens to Social Security and other benefits: Funding for entitlement benefits is considered mandatory, meaning it’s not subject to the annual appropriations process.

So the money will be there to pay the benefits. The only question is whether the federal workers who process them will be.

Social Security checks did go out during the last shutdown, and the White House should be able to ensure the same thing happens again if need be.

During the mid-1990s shutdowns, the Social Security Administration initially retained nearly 5,000 employees to send benefits to those already enrolled in the program. But during the second, longer shutdown, it realized it would need closer to 50,000 employees to process applications for new claims or Social Security cards, address changes and other benefit-related tasks.

How Obamacare will fare: Those who would threaten to shut the government down are those who most want to see Obamacare delayed and defunded.

But an analysis by the CRS concludes that the implementation of Obamacare is likely to continue in the event of a shutdown.

 

Where Keystone’s oil will go

Money.com

By Steve Hargreaves @hargreavesCNN

September 16, 2013: 3:58 AM ET

 

NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

If the proposed Keystone pipeline expansion gets built, oil will flow from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. But will it stay in the United States, or get shipped elsewhere?

Supporters of Keystone say the project will benefit Americans because it will reduce the country’s reliance on foreign oil.

But critics claim the oil Keystone carries will simply be exported to other parts of the world.

Which argument is right? Refining analysts say both.

Reducing dependence on foreign oil

It’s true that the 830,000 barrels a day the pipeline is slated to carry would probably replace some of the 2 million barrels a day of heavy oil currently imported to the Gulf Coast. It’s generally cheaper to transport oil by pipeline than by ship, so refiners would likely opt for the Canadian crude.

“They want the additional Canadian barrels to displace higher cost barrels from Venezuela, Mexico or Saudi Arabia,” said Allen Good, an oil company stock analyst at Morningstar.

The energy boom in both the United States and Canada is already reducing imports. In 2008 the United States imported 9.8 million barrels of oil a day, according to the Energy Information Administration. By 2012 that number had fallen to 8.5 million barrels a day.

Exporting more oil

But it’s also true that exports of refined products from the United States will likely continue to rise.

Thanks largely to better fuel economy and higher prices, the long-term demand for gasoline in the United States is either flat or declining. That means the nation’s refineries are producing more gasoline, diesel fuel and other oil products than the country needs, and exporting the rest. Gasoline is actually one of the nation’s largest exports, going mostly to Latin America.

In 2008 the country exported 1.8 million barrels a day of refined products, according to EIA. By 2012 that number jumped to 3.2 million barrels.

“That trend will continue whether Keystone is built or not,” said Brian Milne, a refined fuels editor at Schneider Electric, an information provider

Once refined, it’ll be impossible to tell exactly where the oil that came down the pipeline went, but “with more oil, that [export] number will increase,” said Milne.

Related: If Wall Street’s right, Obama may nix Keystone

President Obama is expected to either approve or deny the pipeline by the end of this year.

The project has become a matter of intense debate in the United States. Critics hate it because they fear it will accelerate “dirty” oil production from Canada’s oil sands region in Alberta. Oil sands crude emits about 17% more greenhouse gases than traditional oil, according to the U.S. State Department, largely due to the heat it takes to separate the oil from the sand.

Supporters say the oil is no dirtier than other forms of heavy oil the country is currently importing.

 

 

Dry Nevada seeing green in indoor farming

By MICHELLE RINDELS
Associated Press

Posted on Sun, Sep. 15, 2013

http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/09/15/v-print/3628491/dry-nevada-seeing-green-in-indoor.html

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Don’t be fooled by the electric green foliage and pungent scents at Ken Kesick’s farm. It’s not like most farms you’ve ever seen.

The basil and other greens that will soon be served on restaurant china are cropping up in a hostile, sagebrush-spangled desert where no more than 5 inches of rain fall each year. Instead of gently rolling fields, these crops are penned inside four walls, a floor and a roof.

Welcome to indoor agriculture, an industry that some see as vital for a growing world population, and one that Nevada views as an economic frontier.

“This is a segment we think has a lot of potential,” said Bonnie Lind of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which is in talks with 10 different agriculture-related businesses that are considering expanding or relocating in Nevada.

Couture crops like the micro arugula and micro basil at Kesick’s Hydro Greens in Pahrump, or the mini cocktail cucumbers in Windset Farms’ greenhouse in North Las Vegas, are helping to recapture some of an estimated $2 billion “leaked” annually from the state economy when Las Vegas’ tourism industry imports food from other states and countries.

Nevada’s existing half-billion-dollar agriculture industry includes only about 40 acres of crops cultivated indoors. The bulk of the ag industry is centered in the rural northern Nevada and is dominated by grazing.

State officials want to shift that balance to reduce the state’s dependence on fickle tourism spending. Earlier this year, the economic development office co-sponsored its first indoor agriculture conference in Las Vegas that brought together about 250 scientists, farmers and entrepreneurs. Lind said a half-dozen prospects came from the conference or became more serious as a result. A similar conference is scheduled next spring.

Indoor agriculture also is a focus of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s upcoming October trade mission to Israel, a hub of non-traditional farming techniques suited for the desert.

While the sector is robust in other countries including Japan and Canada, it’s so small in the U.S. that the federal Department of Agriculture doesn’t bother to give it a separate category in record-keeping. Experts say no one state has yet to corner the market.

If scientists in Nevada have their way, the state will become an intellectual hub for tackling larger questions about food security: What’s the best way to feed a growing world population while water resources dwindle and soil is exhausted?

Navin Twarakavi, a soil researcher at Nevada’s Desert Research Institute who is working to develop more efficient farming methods, said the answer is going indoors.

“It is not an economic option,” he said. “It’s a necessity.”

Twarakavi deals in a world in which soil is a sideshow to techniques like hydroponics and aeroponics. Better known for its association with clandestine indoor marijuana grows, hydroponics involves growing crops directly in water, and its cousin, aeroponics, involves suspending plants in the air and misting their roots with a mineral-rich liquid solution.

Because they cut out the water lost through evaporation and seepage, the most finely tuned systems can whittle down water use to 7 percent to 15 percent of traditional methods. That’s attractive in a region where officials are willing to pay billions to pipe in water from Ice Age aquifers along the Nevada-Utah border.

“Water is so stressed in southern Nevada that literally every drop is being fought for,” Twarakavi said.

The region also has a robust culinary industry that needs enough food to supply 40 million hungry Las Vegas visitors each year.

Many of the businesses hoping to set up shop in the Silver State are attracted to Las Vegas’ star-studded lineup of celebrity chefs, Lind said. If their niche product can win the endorsement of a big name, their business could multiply.

While indoor farms are immune outdoor blights including frosts and pests, they face other hurdles — not least among which is energy costs.

Glass-enclosed greenhouses often bring in too much of the blazing desert heat. Most indoor growing operations must turn to artificial lights and air conditioning to keep plants at optimal temperatures.

University of Arizona plant sciences professor Chieri Kubota says indoor farming is becoming more cost-effective, especially as improvements in LED light technology reduce lighting costs. She estimates that growing a head of lettuce indoors requires a 25-30 cents’ worth of energy. If the lettuce sells for $1.30 a head, the farmer can make a profit, she said.

Beyond production costs, indoor farmers must struggle to sell to consumers who don’t understand hydroponics.

“Customers aren’t very educated,” said Darcy Landis, a “forager” for Whole Foods in Nevada and Arizona. While they’re looking for the “certified organic” label, they don’t realize hydroponic crops “often go above and beyond the requirements of organics.”

Others question whether the high tech methods produce the same taste — something that’s up for debate and varies crop to crop.

“Are we doing everything we’re doing in nature? Mostly no,” Twarakavi said, pointing out that indoor systems don’t always have the same makeup of beneficial microbes and fungi as nature does.

That can alter taste.

For Rick Moonen, the celebrity chef who owns sustainability-focused rm seafood at the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino, the stigma is intangible.

“I’d prefer something that came out of the ground,” he said. “I like the smell of the dirt.”

Experts don’t believe indoor agriculture is a wholesale replacement for traditional methods. Some crops are easier grown indoors than others. A reasonable goal is for Nevada can produce a fraction — maybe a third — of the crop diversity needed for Nevada’s broad palate.

While the state’s incentives for indoor agriculture businesses are limited to standard tax abatement packages offered to all types of new or expanding businesses, Nevada officials are hoping to attract more farmers like Kesick. His 4-year-old Hydro Greens company supplies restaurants on and off the Strip, has expanded to 30,000 square feet and landed a partnership with Smith’s stores this spring.

He’s become a literal poster boy at the grocery store chain, where a large sign picturing him and his family hangs above the produce section under a mantra that’s still elusive for many in southern Nevada:

“Smith’s proudly supports local farmers.” 

http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/09/15/v-print/3628491/dry-nevada-seeing-green-in-indoor.html#storylink=cpy


 

 

Brazil looks to break from US-centric Internet

Associated Press

BRADLEY BROOKS and FRANK BAJAK

 

 

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil plans to divorce itself from the U.S.-centric Internet over Washington’s widespread online spying, a move that many experts fear will be a potentially dangerous first step toward fracturing a global network built with minimal interference by governments.

President Dilma Rousseff ordered a series of measures aimed at greater Brazilian online independence and security following revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted her communications, hacked into the state-owned Petrobras oil company’s network and spied on Brazilians who entrusted their personal data to U.S. tech companies such as Facebook and Google.

The leader is so angered by the espionage that on Tuesday she postponed next month’s scheduled trip to Washington, where she was to be honored with a state dinner.

Internet security and policy experts say the Brazilian government’s reaction to information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is understandable, but warn it could set the Internet on a course of Balkanization.

“The global backlash is only beginning and will get far more severe in coming months,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute at the Washington-based New America Foundation think tank. “This notion of national privacy sovereignty is going to be an increasingly salient issue around the globe.”

While Brazil isn’t proposing to bar its citizens from U.S.-based Web services, it wants their data to be stored locally as the nation assumes greater control over Brazilians’ Internet use to protect them from NSA snooping.

The danger of mandating that kind of geographic isolation, Meinrath said, is that it could render inoperable popular software applications and services and endanger the Internet’s open, interconnected structure.

The effort by Latin America’s biggest economy to digitally isolate itself from U.S. spying not only could be costly and difficult, it could encourage repressive governments to seek greater technical control over the Internet to crush free expression at home, experts say.

In December, countries advocating greater “cyber-sovereignty” pushed for such control at an International Telecommunications Union meeting in Dubai, with Western democracies led by the United States and the European Union in opposition.

U.S. digital security expert Bruce Schneier says that while Brazil’s response is a rational reaction to NSA spying, it is likely to embolden “some of the worst countries out there to seek more control over their citizens’ Internet. That’s Russia, China, Iran and Syria.”

Rousseff says she intends to push for international rules on privacy and security in hardware and software during the U.N. General Assembly meeting later this month. Among Snowden revelations: the NSA has created backdoors in software and Web-based services.

Brazil is now pushing more aggressively than any other nation to end U.S. commercial hegemony on the Internet. More than 80 percent of online search, for example, is controlled by U.S.-based companies.

Most of Brazil’s global Internet traffic passes through the United States, so Rousseff’s government plans to lay underwater fiber optic cable directly to Europe and also link to all South American nations to create what it hopes will be a network free of U.S. eavesdropping.

 

More communications integrity protection is expected when Telebras, the state-run telecom company, works with partners to oversee the launch in 2016 of Brazil’s first communications satellite, for military and public Internet traffic. Brazil’s military currently relies on a satellite run by Embratel, which Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim controls.

Rousseff is urging Brazil’s Congress to compel Facebook, Google and all companies to store data generated by Brazilians on servers physically located inside Brazil in order to shield it from the NSA.

If that happens, and other nations follow suit, Silicon Valley’s bottom line could be hit by lost business and higher operating costs: Brazilians rank No. 3 on Facebook and No. 2 on Twitter and YouTube. An August study by a respected U.S. technology policy nonprofit estimated the fallout from the NSA spying scandal could cost the U.S. cloud computing industry, which stores data remotely to give users easy access from any device, as much as $35 billion by 2016 in lost business.

Brazil also plans to build more Internet exchange points, places where vast amounts of data are relayed, in order to route Brazilians’ traffic away from potential interception.

And its postal service plans by next year to create an encrypted email service that could serve as an alternative to Gmail and Yahoo!, which according to Snowden-leaked documents are among U.S. tech giants that have collaborated closely with the NSA.

“Brazil intends to increase its independent Internet connections with other countries,” Rousseff’s office said in an emailed response to questions from The Associated Press on its plans.

It cited a “common understanding” between Brazil and the European Union on data privacy, and said “negotiations are underway in South America for the deployment of land connections between all nations.” It said Brazil plans to boost investment in home-grown technology and buy only software and hardware that meet government data privacy specifications.

While the plans’ technical details are pending, experts say they will be costly for Brazil and ultimately can be circumvented. Just as people in China and Iran defeat government censors with tools such as “proxy servers,” so could Brazilians bypass their government’s controls.

International spies, not just from the United States, also will adjust, experts said. Laying cable to Europe won’t make Brazil safer, they say. The NSA has reportedly tapped into undersea telecoms cables for decades.

Meinrath and others argue that what’s needed instead are strong international laws that hold nations accountable for guaranteeing online privacy.

“There’s nothing viable that Brazil can really do to protect its citizenry without changing what the U.S. is doing,” he said.

Matthew Green, a Johns Hopkins computer security expert, said Brazil won’t protect itself from intrusion by isolating itself digitally. It will also be discouraging technological innovation, he said, by encouraging the entire nation to use a state-sponsored encrypted email service.

“It’s sort of like a Soviet socialism of computing,” he said, adding that the U.S. “free-for-all model works better.”

 

OMB to agencies: Start making shutdown plans

Washington Post

By Eric Yoder, Updated: September 18, 2013

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/wp/2013/09/18/omb-to-agencies-start-making-shutdown-plans/

Federal agencies have been told to begin planning for a partial government shutdown starting Oct. 1, including taking a fresh look at which employees would stay on the job and which would be sent home, if a funding agreement isn’t reached by then.

Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia M. Burwell on Tuesday issued a memo ordering agencies to update plans they had made in similar past situations of budgetary gridlock.

“The Administration does not want a lapse in appropriations to occur,” Burwell wrote. “There is enough time for Congress to prevent a lapse in appropriations, and the Administration is willing to work with Congress to enact a short-term continuing resolution to fund critical Government operations and allow Congress the time to complete the full year 2014 appropriations. However, prudent management requires that agencies be prepared for the possibility of a lapse.”

In a partial shutdown, certain operations continue, and employees needed to keep those functions running remain on the job. Excepted functions commonly include those necessary for national security, protection of life and property, and making benefit payments under entitlement programs.

The memo said that agency leaders “should carefully review determinations regarding which employees would be necessary for the agency’s continued performance of those ‘excepted’ functions, to ensure that these case-by-case determinations are consistent with the applicable legal requirements.”

Self-funding operations that do not draw appropriations from the Treasury, the largest of which is the U.S. Postal Service, also would continue.

In a similar situation in early 2011, OMB said that of the roughly 2.1 million non-postal federal employees, all but about 800,000 would be kept on the job. Those continuing to work would be unpaid at first, but entitled to retroactive pay once new funding is in place.

“Without further specific direction or enactment by Congress, all excepted employees are entitled to receive payment for obligations incurred by their agencies for their performance of excepted work during the period of the appropriations lapse,” the memo says. “After appropriations are enacted, payroll centers will pay all excepted employees for time worked.”

Other employees typically would be given up to a half-day of work to “provide necessary notices and contact information, secure their files, complete time and attendance records, and otherwise make preparations to preserve their work”—and then would have to stay off the job.

They would not be allowed to work voluntarily during “shutdown furlough” time and they could not substitute paid time off such as annual leave, according to Office of Personnel Management guidance.

Whether they would be paid later for that time would be up to Congress and the White House.

“Federal employees who have been furloughed under a shutdown historically have received their salaries retroactively. However, there appears to be no guarantee that employees placed on shutdown furlough would receive such pay,” according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

The OMB memo also addresses issues involving making payments under grants and contracts, continued spending to keep information technology systems running, and other administrative matters.

The most recent partial government shutdown occurred in late 1995 into early 1996, although the threat has been raised many times since then.

 
 

Florida college to offer masters degree in drone warfare

SUASNews

by Press • 19 September 2013

 

Secured inside a room you need a U.S. passport to enter is a modern arcade of war machines.

‘It looks like a gamer’s paradise: A comfortable tan leather captain’s chair sits behind four computer monitors, an airplane joystick with a red “fire” button, a keyboard and throttle control.

The games here have great implications. Across the world, a $20 million Gray Eagle drone armed with four Hellfire missiles, ready to make a sortie into hostile territory is taking commands from a workstation like this one. A graduate from this room on the campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach could be in that other room in as little as six months with a master’s degree in drone warfare, his hand on the joystick, making $150,000 a year.

Welcome to the new basic training, where the skills to fight the War of Tomorrow are taught in private classrooms today. Embry-Riddle this fall became the first in the country to offer post graduate education in this field.

“We’re trying to prepare our students so they’re ready to operate at the highest levels,” said Dan Macchiarella, department chair of aeronautical sciences at Embry-Riddle.

But as with so many things that begin with a military purpose, these unmanned vehicles are coming in all shapes and sizes — from full-sized planes to mini helicopters less than 2 feet across — to play a role in the civilian world.

They are used by law enforcement to patrol the borders, to nab shark-fin poachers off the Galapagos Islands, to hover above the trees and count populations of endangered birds. The University of Florida built its own drone to monitor wildlife.

There are storm-chasing drones. Fire-fighting drones. Drones to report real-time traffic. Congress has ordered the FAA to issue new regulations for this impending civilian army of unmanned vehicles.

Look up in the sky: The drones are coming.

“It’s going to grow exponentially once the law catches up,” said Josh Olds, an Embry-Riddle graduate and drone flight instructor at Embry-Riddle who worked with government contractors overseas before returning to help run the school’s flight simulation lab.

The government budget for drone warfare has gone from a relatively paltry $667 million in 2002 to more than $3.9 billion, according to a Congressional Research Service report. And the number of drones in military service has shot from 167 to nearly 7,500 — and climbing.

Where there is a new skill to learn, there is soon a teacher.

Some will simply enlist in the military to train in piloting drones. For the civilians, there is now college.

In 2011, the University of North Dakota was the first to graduate a class — of five students — with a bachelor of science in unmanned systems. In May, Kansas State awarded its first diploma.
Embry-Riddle had hoped to attract 200 students within the first five years of the program. Just three semesters in, they have 120 students. Now, they expect they’ll have to limit their enrollment to 500 students a year.

“It’s taking off like a rocket,” Macchiarella said. “We had students go through the program as fast as they could to get out there.”

Already, through its ROTC program, Embry-Riddle graduates more pilot cadets than any other institution outside the military academies. Of its 5,000 students, about a quarter are involved with the ROTC program. Most have financial aid to offset the $30,000 annual tuition.

The nature of this fly-by-computer-screen technology attracts the young gamer-type, Macchiarella said — much different from the soldiers of his generation, when he retired as an Army lieutenant colonel.

But he saw the change coming as he worked in the battle labs where the military flew some of the first advanced unmanned aircrafts, the so-called Hunter UAV spy planes with 29-foot wingspans.

“My generation grew up with Vietnam on TV,” said Macchiarella, who flew Apache helicopters. “But this spins off from gaming. Just look at it. It looks like gaming.”

In an economy hungry for jobs, students are going where the work is. And right now, drones are hot.

“I didn’t get into flying airplanes to do this, but I fell into it because it was lucrative,” said John Bounds, a 2006 Embry-Riddle graduate who manages the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flight lab and serves as a flight instructor. “The salary this offered was competitive with what I could make as a pilot with 15 years experience.”

Two years out of school, Bounds was hired by a government contractor, General Dynamic Information Technology, to train civilians and soldiers to fly drones at Libby Army Airfield in Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

Bounds was hired specifically because of his experience with General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle, a $21.5 million turbo-diesel unmanned plane with a 56-foot wingspan, which can carry four Hellfires or eight stinger missiles, fly at 170 mph, up to 29,000 feet and 30 hours straight.

“Privates straight out of basic training, we trained them on the system, then they deployed,” Bounds said.

Along with the ubiquitous Predator, it is the among the most popular drone used by the military. Embry-Riddle is looking into purchasing a Gray Eagle for training, which would take off from the adjacent Daytona Beach International Airport, Bounds said.

At Embry-Riddle, there are two tracks for students interested in drones: one to build and one to fly.

On a recent blustery Monday, a remote-controlled boat shaped like a floating box braved the choppy waters in the expansive fountain outside the Embry-Riddle president’s office, when a 2-foot-wide helicopter with four blades — a “quad copter” — lifted off from the back of the boat.

Will Shaler, 21, kept it aloft via remote control and landed it back safely — and dry. Soon, these two remote-controlled systems will work in tandem, and completely autonomously, to complete a task laid out in a contest sponsored by a government contractor.

The goal is to make drones that execute particular tasks, from mowing the lawn at the neighboring airport at night to a tiny one that can hover through a window, steal a thumb-drive off a desk and replace it with a phony before making its escape.

And for this, they rely on students like Shaler to design them.

“Nobody’s going to be buying manned fighter planes in a few years,” said Shaler, a mechanical engineering senior who wants to work in drone robotics.

“We feel UAVs are an integral part of the future of aviation,” Embry-Riddle President John Johnson said, coming out to watch the robotics students maneuvering outside his office.

But right now, there’s a catch with UAVs: No one can legally use the airspace to fly unmanned aircraft for profit.

The industry is waiting for the FAA to expand the usable U.S. airspace for drones. The regulations now were designed for hobbyists flying remote-controlled airplanes and helicopters under 400 feet.

There are only a handful of exceptions for private entities doing research and development, and flight training or demonstrations. The FAA grants a Certificate of Authorization, which permits a limited area for a particular aircraft. But only 327 are approved in the country at last count, in February.

“Right now, it’s kind of in the ‘Wild West’ stage,” Macchiarella said. And of course, there are concerns over privacy.

This year, Florida passed a law that bars local law enforcement from using drones without a warrant, unless there’s the threat of a terrorist attack, and says the information can’t be used as evidence in court. (Three Florida law enforcement agencies — Miami-Dade police, and Orange and Polk counties sheriff’s offices — are authorized to use drones.)

“There’s an industry that wants to sell hundreds and thousands of these drones all over the country, and before they’re up in the sky, I thought it was a good idea to say, here are the rules in Florida,” Florida Sen. Joe Negron, who sponsored the bill, told the Miami Herald in April.

The days of unmanned vehicles whizzing overhead are drawing near.

The war games are coming home.
Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/09/19/florida-college-to-offer-masters-degree-in-drone-warfare/#ixzz2fLS6LkqK

 

GPS Jammers Could Knock Out Signals in a Medium-Sized City

By Bob Brewin

September 19, 2013

http://www.nextgov.com/defense/2013/09/gps-jammers-could-knock-out-signals-medium-sized-city/70582/

A single well-placed GPS jammer or spoofer could disrupt signals in an entire region of the United States, an official from the Homeland Security Department told a GPS conference in Nashville, Tenn.

At the same time, the U.S. still “lacks the capability to rapidly detect and geo-locate jamming or spoofing of GPS services,” DHS program manager John Merrill told the annual meeting of the Civil Global Positioning System Service Interface Committee, a global forum that fosters interaction between the U.S. and worldwide GPS users. The U.S. developed and operates GPS.

Merrill did not define the size of a region a GPS jammer could knock out, but Jules McNeff, who spent 20 years in the Air Force working on GPS and is now vice president for strategies and programs at Overlook Systems Technologies Inc., a GPS engineering firm in Vienna, Va.,estimated a one watt GPS jammer could blanket a medium sized city.

Logan Scott, president of a company with GPS expertise called LS Consulting, said in a May webinar run by Inside GNSS that a GPS jammer with one-tenth of a watt of transmit power has a range of 9.4 miles, a one watt jammer, 29.8 miles, and a fen watt jammer, 94.2 miles. Inside GNSS is a magazine on GPS and other satellite navigation systems operated by China, the European Union and Russia, collectively called Global Navigation Satellite Systems.

Consumer jammers at these power levels can be purchased on the Internet primarily from Chinese manufacturers at prices as low as $40.

DHS and the Defense Department have worked to develop a jammer location system that picks up and feeds jammer signals to a master station run by the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency since 2010, but to date the only feeds it receives are from sensors located at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, Merrill told the conference.

 

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission spent two years — from March 2009 to April 2011 — locating just one GPS jammer used on the New Jersey Turnpike. That jammer interfered with an FAA system that provides enhanced navigation signals to aircraft in the vicinity of the airport for precision approach, departure procedures and terminal area operations.

McNeff called the jammer location system a “concept,” not an operational countrywide system.

The FAA plans to place heavy reliance on GPS between now and 2030, with the satellite system as the core of its Next Generation Air Transportation System, and plans to decommission its ground based VHF omnidirectional radio, or VOR, by then.

Jammers can affect GPS as well as other GNSS systems. In September 2012, the FAA set up a GNSS Intentional Interference and Spoofing Study Team to “identify technical, political, legal, and operational ways to mitigate the impact of GPS spoofing and jamming.”

Deborah Lawrence, manager of FAA’s navigation programs, told the conference that the study team will, by the end of September, provide the agency with “specific, actionable recommendations” on how to counteract spoofing and jamming.

 

US Has Concerns with UK Plan to Outsource Acquisition Oversight

Apr. 29, 2013 – 05:12PM |

By DEFENSE NEWS STAFF |    

 

WASHINGTON AND LONDON — The US Defense Department is expressing concern over a UK initiative to consider outsourcing management of its defense procurement and support operations, roles traditionally filled by government employees.

Britain plans to select a contractor to fulfill acquisition oversight duties by mid-2014 and is poised to begin a 12-month assessment of the government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) framework. The plan is part of broader overhaul of the UK Defence Equipment & Support operation (DE&S).

“We do have some concerns over an option that would put contractors in roles normally filled by government employees and the effects this would have on ongoing and future cooperation,” said US Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a spokeswoman for Frank Kendall, DoD’s top acquisition official.

Kendall and Bernard Gray, British chief of defense materiel, have set up a “joint, bilateral, interagency team to explore how a GOCO DE&S organization would affect our current relationship and what changes may be needed in order to maintain the current level of cooperation,” Morgan said. “This team will examine key processes and topics that will lead to any issues that we may have to address with Great Britain as they proceed with their GOCO design phase.”

Kendall and Philip Dunne, Britain’s minister for defense equipment, support and technology, discussed the GOCO arrangement when Dunne visited Washington last week.

Asked about DoD’s perception of the GOCO effort, Dunne said: “I think the best way to characterize it is that they are watching with interest.

“They are being very helpful that we recognize that for government-to-government contract and relationships, it is very important we take our government allies, have the opportunity to express any issues that they have in what we are ready to do,” he said in an April 23 interview.

 

The UK and US frequently share sensitive technology, and US officials wonder how government-to-government deals would work with a corporate intermediary.

The British — considered America’s strongest defense partner — are about to become the only foreign operator of the RC-135 Rivet Joint intelligence plane. The two nations also share nuclear and ballistic-missile technology.

At DoD, government employees oversee procurement efforts. Senior DoD officials have expressed concern that the British might allow contractors access to sensitive information, traditionally handled through a government-to-government exchange.

But Dunne said the UK has precedent for GOCO involving sensitive information through the Atomic Weapons Establishment, a group that builds and maintains warheads for Trident submarine-launched nuclear ballistic missiles.

“We’ve been working closely with the US on the Materiel Strategy for over 12 months and our US colleagues understand our objectives and are sympathetic to them,” Dunne said through a spokesman. “My team continues to engage with DoD and other agencies to work through this and I’m confident that we’ll continue to have a close and harmonious relationship with the US just as we’ve enjoyed for decades.”

The British DE&S organization oversees about £14 billion (US $21.4 billion) in acquisition annually.

UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said in a written statement to Parliament on April 25 that the government will make a final decision about whether to go ahead with the GOCO outsourcing plan next year after it runs an assessment phase.

If the UK goes with the GOCO model, it plans a phased implementation, Dunne said.

A Defence Ministry spokesman said if the plan is approved, a contractor would be appointed in the summer of 2014 and take over the first phase of the GOCO by the winter. The second phase of the management outsourcing would kick in two years later.

The spokesman said no decision had been made on which part of the DE&S operation would be taken over first by the contractor, however British sources said the air sector is being targeted.

Hammond said the assessment phase and a competition to appoint a contractor would take place in tandem.

“In parallel, a commercial competition will be launched that will enable us to determine with potential private partners how a GOCO would work in practice, and what costs and benefits would be. By the end of the assessment phase we would expect to have proposals in a form capable of being contracted if we decide to proceed with the GOCO model,” he said.

Hammond said a two-phase implementation of the GOCO plan was the MoD’s preferred method to try to erase the cost and time overruns that have dogged British defense procurement for years.

During an April 23 speech at McKenna, Long and Aldridge, a law firm in Wash­ing­ton, Dunne said there are “insufficient skills and freedoms” within the DE&S organization.

“The skills and expertise which our procurement agency called DE&S needs to perform its role effectively are very different to those required and valued by much of the rest of the Civil Service, skills which often have a high market value, and therefore are easily poached by the very defense industry companies with whom they are negotiating,” he said.

Dunne said he believes the private sector can help and perhaps lead to cost savings in acquisition.

 

Paul Everitt, the chief executive of ADS Group, the British defense trade lobby group, acknowledged industry needs to deliver military capability at a price the country can afford, but warned there are outstanding issues that suppliers still want to see resolved.

“Whatever option is put into place following this final assessment phase, it is important that the structure is fully debated with all stakeholders and legitimate issues are appropriately addressed,” Everitt said.

One British-based executive said industry remains skeptical the plan will work and has been quietly lobbying against a GOCO.

A second executive said he doubted the ability of the MoD to meet the timescales laid out for the program, given the history of program slippage at DE&S.

Any delays to the timetable for the GOCO could be complicated by an upcoming general election, likely in 2015.

Gray, the chief of defense materiel and the architect of the GOCO initiative, first raised the issue of a GOCO in 2009 during the Labour Party’s tenure in office.

But his plan, which was part of wide-ranging acquisition reform recommendations, was rejected.

Executives continue to raise concerns over a raft of issues around intellectual property ownership and exactly who will bear the risk on defense programs.

Others said they were concerned that a GOCO on this scale in a sector of this complexity has never been tried.

In a report last year, the Royal United Services Institute think tank came out strongly against the GOCO option.

“History is littered with outsourcing deals either or both parties eventually find constraining and/or in practice, more expensive,” the think tank said.

US-based contractor Jacobs Engineering has been appointed as the MoD’s delivery partner to assist the ministry in developing the business model for the handover of procurement activities to a contractor.

Jacobs is best known in the defense sector here for its role in the Lockheed Martin-led GOCO that runs the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

Hammond said the MoD expects to publish a white paper “later in the spring” setting out the nature of the procurement problem, options for potential solutions, and the reasons the focus has been on the GOCO solution.

The MoD spokesman said that, assuming the GOCO gets the all-clear, the plan is to present legislation before Parliament in the next few weeks to allow the change to proceed with a contractor or consortium in place to start operations by December 2014.

Industry sources in the UK called the government timetable for implementation of the plan “racy.”

Bechtel, CH2 Hill, KBR and Fluor from the US, along with Serco and Atkins in the UK, are expected to be among a handful of consortia forming to address the controversial requirement to hand over running of DE&S.

Gray believes a contractor would be better at squeezing realistic and affordable agreement from suppliers.

 

Jim Armitage: MoD should beat a retreat on this sell off

Friday 13 September 2013

The Independent

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/comment/jim-armitage-mod-should-beat-a-retreat-on-this-sell-off-8813118.html

The Ministry of Defence’s privatisation of the Defence Equipment and Support organisation really should be stood at ease while the Government rethinks.

It seemed a good idea at first: contract out to an expert private company the buying of military kit and services, rather than see the generals continually fleeced by the arms and support industries.

Tendering for this new role has begun, but the bidding has been far from enthusiastic. The trouble is, these are often complicated procurements with a high chance of going wrong for the contractor doing the buying – both in terms of profitability and bad publicity.

Profit-wise, it’s hard to stack up because the military will retain the final power to specify the precise kit it wants. So shaving costs by doing away with the military’s demands for unnecessary bells and whistles will be difficult.

As for the risk of bad PR, decent potential bidders have often already got other, more lucrative, MoD jobs on. They don’t want to jeopardise those with the potential failure of this risky new one.

Such are the risks that bidders have decided to hold hands in consortia rather than go it alone.

But those groupings seem fairly unstable too. The US engineer KBR and Britain’s Qinetiq pulled out of early-stage teams, while engineers CH2M Hill and WS Atkins are both trying to encourage their partner Serco to drop out of their consortium because they don’t want to be tainted by the ankle-tagging scandal.

Let’s beat a retreat on this privatisation before it resembles the charge of the Light Brigade

 

U.K. Readies Royal Mail Privatization

Sale Part of Plan to Sell Off State Assets

By PETER EVANS

and AINSLEY THOMSON


http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323595004579070300690830242.html

 

LONDON—The U.K. government on Thursday said it would sell a majority stake in state-owned postal service Royal Mail Group Ltd. through an initial public offering in the coming weeks, formalizing one of the biggest privatizations the country has seen in decades.

The sale is part of the U.K. coalition government’s plan to sell off state assets to help cut the country’s budget deficit.

Royal Mail’s history dates back to 1516 when King Henry VIII ordered the creation of the first national post service. In recent years, however, the company has battled the rise of the Internet and email, leading to losses in five of the last 12 years and the elimination of more than 50,000 jobs. It now handles about 58 million letters and parcels a day, down from 84 million five years ago.

Business Secretary Vince Cable said the privatization would allow the Royal Mail to continue operating for six days a week, with a “one-price-goes-anywhere” service. “This is an important day for the Royal Mail, its employees and its customers,” he said.

The size and value of the stake to be sold by the government wasn’t disclosed, but financial data firm Dealogic in July estimated the IPO would value Royal Mail at about £2.5 billion ($3.95 billion). On Thursday, one person working on the deal said the valuation would be close to £3 billion.

 

Such a valuation would surpass the £1.3 billion float of defense firm QinetiQ Group PLC in 2006 and the £1.9 billion IPO of rail-network operator Railtrack in 1996.

Some 10% of the shares in the company will be made available free of charge to around 150,000 eligible U.K.-based Royal Mail employees. The company has about 159,000 employees. The selloff will create the largest employee share program of any British privatization for almost 30 years, according to Dealogic.

U.K.’s Royal Mail currently handles about 58 million letters and parcels a day.

The remaining stake—at least 41% of the company—will be offered to institutional investors and the British public. As part of the float, the Royal Mail said it has secured borrowing facilities totaling £1.4 billion.

Lazard Ltd. is advising the government on the IPO.

The privatization of Britain’s postal service follows similar moves by some European neighbors. Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands have all privatized their postal services in part or fully. In June, Belgium’s postal service, Bpost, raised €2.9 billion ($3.9 billion) in an IPO. By contrast, the U.S. Postal Service is still government-owned.

The U.K. initially announced its intention to offer a majority stake in Royal Mail through an IPO in July, with Mr. Cable saying at the time that the sale would allow the business to get private-sector investment and safeguard its universal service.

The plans weren’t welcomed by the Communication Workers Union, which represents around 125,000 Royal Mail staff.

“Privatization would put jobs and services at risk and lead to higher prices for customers,” said Billy Hayes, CWU general secretary.

The union said it would poll its members about whether to hold a national strike, with the result expected in early October.

Michael Fallon, U.K. Minister of State for Business and Enterprise, said an industrial dispute was unlikely to dent investor appetite for Royal Mail shares. “Strike action wouldn’t derail this privatization,” he said on a call with reporters.

The Royal Mail privatization echoes those carried out in the 1980s under Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mrs. Thatcher’s privatization of large swaths of British industry led to union strikes and allegations she was selling state jewels at bargain prices, depriving the treasury of funds and rewarding speculators.

The opposition Labour Party called the planned Royal Mail IPO a “fire sale” and said it would affect employees, businesses and consumers.

 

Rasmussen Reports

What They Told Us: Reviewing Last Week’s Key Polls

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Put your money where your mouth is. That seems to be what many congressional Republicans are counting on in the coming days.

With a September 30 deadline pending, House Republicans on Friday passed a federal budget minus funding for further implementation of President Obama’s national health care law. The Democrat-run Senate is highly unlikely to go along, but the House GOP says it won’t agree to a budget that includes money for Obamacare. A partial government shutdown seems likely unless or until the impasse can be resolved.

Most voters still don’t like the health care law, and 54% expect it to increase, not reduce, health care costs. From the beginning of the debate over the law four years ago, voters have consistently said that cost is their number one health care concern.

At the same time, 56% think a government shutdown would be bad for the economy, even though payments for things like Social Security, Medicare and unemployment would continue, but 58% favor a federal budget that cuts spending. This helps explain why 53% would rather have a partial government shutdown until Democrats and Republicans can agree on what spending to cut. Fifty-one percent (51%) favor having a partial government shutdown until Democrats and Republicans agree on what spending for the health care law to cut.

Stay tuned to see which side blinks first.

While some Republicans in Congress hope to stop the health care law by defunding it, voters are evenly divided over which political party they trust more to handle health care.

Forty-one percent (41%) give the president good or excellent marks when it comes to health care issues, while 44% rate his performance in this area as poor. These findings have changed little all year.

The president’s overall job approval ratings have held steady for weeks now at levels seen for much of his first term in office.

Democrats and Republicans are tied at 39% apiece on the latest Generic Congressional Ballot. For much of the summer, neither has hit the 40% mark, suggesting a high level of voter unhappiness with both major political parties.

Washington’s attention to the budget was diverted briefly this week by the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. Americans had strong reactions following the horrific incident on Monday – but not necessarily in the way you might think.

Just 33% of Americans believe it’s at least somewhat likely that stricter gun control laws would have prevented the mass shooting in Washington. Forty-four percent (44%) now believe the United States needs stricter gun control laws, but that’s down eight points from a high of 52% after the Connecticut elementary school shootings in December. Fifty percent (50%) now oppose more gun control.

Only 16% think it is possible to completely prevent mass shootings like the one this past week. By a three-to-one margin (57% to 19%), Americans now see stepped-up action to treat mental health issues as a better way than more gun control to limit incidents of this nature.

Complicating things for gun control advocates is the fact that just 26% of Americans trust the government to fairly enforce gun control laws.

Fifty-four percent (54%) believe the media offer too much coverage of mass shootings like the one in Washington.

Another big decision pending in Washington is choosing a replacement for Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke as his second term nears an end. Voters remain skeptical of the Fed’s independence. Forty-eight percent (48%) think the Fed chairman is influenced by the president in his decision making. Only 28% believe he is truly independent of the administration. Fifty-nine percent (59%) believe big banks and other major financial institutions have too much insider influence over the actions of the Federal Reserve.

Five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, half of Americans still lack confidence in the stability of the nation’s banking system.

Confidence in the Fed’s ability to keep inflation under control remains low. 
Fifty-eight percent (58%) of Americans think interest rates will be higher in a year’s time, the most pessimism expressed since early 2011.

Still, 39% believe now is a good time for someone in their area to sell a house, a finding that has been trending upward this year and is now at the highest level measured since regular tracking began in April 2009.

Thirty-six percent (36%) believe their home will be worth more in a year’s time. Forty-five percent (45%) expect the value of their home to be higher five years from now.

But 14% think they’re likely to miss or be late with a mortgage payment in the next six months, the highest level of worry this year.

At week’s end, 25% of U.S. consumers said their personal finances are getting better these days. Forty-two percent (42%) said their finances are getting worse. Among investors, 33% said their finances are improving, while 35% said they are getting worse. 

In other surveys last week:

— For the third week in a row, 30% of Likely U.S. Voters say the country is heading in the right direction.

— It’s New Jersey Governor Chris Christie 39%, Vice President Joe Biden 35% in one possible 2016 presidential matchup. Biden’s the winner matched against three other leading Republican contenders. In a face-off with fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton, however, the vice president gets blown away.

—  In a recent New York Times op-ed article, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the view of “American exceptionalism” long expressed in this country, based in large part on our democratic and constitutional origins. But 59% believe the United States is more exceptional than other nations.

Just 39% are at least somewhat confident that the Medicare system will pay them all promised benefits during their lifetime, including 12% who are Very Confident. As with Social Security, voters under 40 remain noticeably less confident that they’ll see these benefits than their elders are.

— Just over half of Americans agree that teachers are paid too little, but 74% underestimate what the average teacher salary really is.

Fifty-seven percent (57%) of Democrats view teachers unions favorably, while 65% of Republicans and a plurality (47%) of unaffiliated adults regard them unfavorably.

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